Fight Food Waste with Your Fridge

Sarah Moore Impact Mill Contributor

We all know the feeling of looking in the fridge and seeing a fuzzy jar of old olives. A crusty old reused yogurt container filled with who-knows-what. That foul vegetable soup that sometimes accumulates at the bottom of the crisper. In addition to being disgusting, such waste can fill a person with serious guilt.

So I say, don’t do it. And by don’t do it, I mean don’t let food waste happen in your fridge in the first place. It took me years to totally kill fridge food waste, but today I can say I have. Okay…I’ll admit that the occasional outlandish Thai food ingredient doesn’t get used completely. But for the most part, nothing ever goes bad in the Moore home. If you’d like to do the same, here’s my complete mini-guide to maintaining a waste-free fridge.

Use Only Clear Food Storage Containers

Meal Planning

Glass containers help you easily see and use up leftovers | image: Wellness Wildflower/Flickr

This is a must. Otherwise, you’ll forever be fighting the battle of “What the hell is in that? I’ll look later.” Spoil alert: You will not look later. You will wait until whatever contents are in that opaque jar are totally nasty, and then you will throw it out. If it’s especially barf-inducing, you will be like the Old Me and just throw out the whole container without even attempting to open the lid. Bad foodie!

Instead, opt for clear containers. These can be plastic or glass, but I favor these containers, which come in different sizes. They’re super easy to clean, hold their shape, keep food fresher than plastic, and don’t leach estrogenic chemicals into your food. Just be sure to keep lids out of the dishwasher, or you’ll ruin their seal.

Understand Your Fridge’s Temperature Zones

I know: Understanding the “temperature zones” inside your fridge sounds weird, right? You’d think a fridge is a fridge and that inside it’s all the same temperature, but ‘taint so. The inside of most fridges vary in temperature in various areas. The door is usually warmest. In many fridges, the bottom is coldest because it’s nearest the cooling unit, but in mine it’s coldest at the top. No, I can’t tell you exactly by how much, but that’s where the cold air comes out.

I do know not to keep veggies on top because, in this coldest area, they’ll wilt. Similarly, I know not to keep perishables like eggs and cheese toward the bottom, because it’s warmer and they won’t last as long. And of course, some foods don’t need to be refrigerated at all.

So, take a second to learn where your fridge is coldest and warmest, then arrange your contents accordingly. You’ll immediately see a boost in freshness and preservation and a reduction in waste.

Have a Plan…but Relax

I’ve always got a plan for when I’ll cook the food in my fridge, but I try to be pretty relaxed about it. Typically I plan my meals about three days ahead, and try not to worry about the remaining ingredients: They usually come together when it’s time.

Keeping a list for shopping and for keeping tabs on when fresh food needs to be cooked cuts down waste | image: Bruce Turner/Flickr

Keeping a list for shopping and for keeping tabs on when fresh food needs to be cooked cuts down waste | image: Bruce Turner/Flickr

Keeping about three meals in my head at a time is manageable, and I always try to put the oldest ingredients in my fridge on that “cook soon” list. As older ingredients get used up, I replenish my meal plan with the next-oldest ingredients. This is usually a lot easier when you learn to meal plan and shop to a list, both of which are skills that seem difficult but are surprisingly easy to master. Here’s a handy grocery list template if you need some inspiration.

Cook a Lot

This tip could actually be rewritten as “Eat at Home a Lot,” depending on your dietary preferences. Whether you cook a lot of food from scratch or eat pre-made or semi-prepared food, eating at home a lot will a) save you a grip of money (eating out once a week costs a family of four roughly $4,000 annually) and b) ensure food cycles through your fridge regularly. The latter is more important for reducing food waste. Only by cooking regularly can you use ingredients up in a reasonable timeline, before they go bad.

Learn to Love Leftovers

Even though it sounds nonsensical, the biggest obstacle I had to overcome to defeat the wasteful fridge is my addiction to cooking. I love to cook, which means that I’m always looking to make something new every night. You can see how this might present a problem. Lots of dishes – soups, stews, lasagnas, quiches – means lots of leftovers in the fridge. And because I was always making something new, these leftovers usually went bad.

So I had to make a sea change and learn to like leftovers. First, I simply committed to eating them for lunch every day. This saved me money and made more room for nightly cooking. Additionally, I learned to use leftovers in new dishes. Rice becomes fried rice. Sautéed veggies become the base for a hash. And so forth. (This is another place where clear containers work great, btw.)

That’s it! The lock, stock and barrel of how I quit wasting food, and you can too.

Sarah Moore is an Impact Mill contributor and freelance writer who focuses on sustainability, local food, and the weirder side of science. In her spare time she enjoys writing fiction, running, and cooking. Sarah lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, two children, two dogs, and an unshakable colony of June bugs.